Like in most of their other conference losses this season, the Bobcats got on the wrong side of momentum early on and got swamped under.
Visiting Buffalo blitzed the Bobcats, 86-66, on Saturday afternoon in the Convocation Center. It was a hard stop on Ohio’s six-game winning streak, their first loss since January, and the program’s worst home loss in three years.
Ohio (13-7, 9-5 Mid-American Conference) trailed by 10 less than nine minutes in, by as many as 23 in the first half, and faced an unfathomable 30-point deficit with just over 10 minutes remaining. The Bulls (12-7, 10-5 MAC), who talked plenty before and during the game, backed it up with a performance marked with pace, transition offense and suffocating defense.
“They came in and out-toughed us. They were ready to play,” said Ohio guard Jason Preston, who tallied 10 points, five rebounds and six assists – but also had five turnovers in just 29 minutes.
“They just out played us.”
Buffalo forward Josh Mballa outplayed everyone. The wiry 6-8 forward had a game-high 23 points and nine rebounds while hitting 9 of his 14 shots. Mballa blistered the nets for 19 points in the first half alone as the Bulls put the game away early with a 52-32 lead at the break.
Forward David Nickelberry added 16 points off the bench for Buffalo and hit 7-of-8 shots. Another forward, Tra’Von Fagan, chipped in 10, and lead guard Jayvon Graves did everything else with 12 points, five rebounds, seven assists and three steals.
Mballa and Nickelberry combined for 39 points on 16-of-22 shooting. Ohio’s top two interior players – Dwight Wilson Jr. and Ben Vander Plas totaled 11 points on 4-of-15 shooting. UB held a gaudy 52-36 edge in points in the paint.
“We didn’t match their energy level to start the game,” Ohio head coach Jeff Boals said. “They threw the first punch and we didn’t respond.”
Wing Ben Roderick led Ohio with 15 points, but converted just 1 of 7 shots from 3-point range. Guard Lunden McDay had 10 points. OU shot a season-worst 4-of-24 (16.7 percent) from 3-point range and missed all 11 3s in the second half. The ‘Cats shot just 37.3 percent overall, and UB won the bench battle 35-20.
Ohio’s only lead came at 6-5 with 15:45 left in the first half. Things quickly went south for the Bobcats thereafter. Buffalo responded with a 13-2 run for an 18-8 lead just over four minutes later. That run was a precursor to an extended 28-7 onslaught that left OU down 33-13 at the under-8 media timeout.
Ohio landed an 11-0 run to pull to within 12 points, but the Bulls stabilized and still led by 20 at the half.
The Bobcats finished with 15 turnovers, but 14 came in the first half and fueled the Bulls’ takeover. UB turned those takeaways into 15 points, and shot 60 percent (21 of 35) in the first 20 minutes.
“You’re not beating Buffalo by doing that,” Boals said. “We didn’t respond like we needed to, or had been.”
Ohio started the second half with a 6-0 spurt, but UB answered with a 9-0 run. The Bulls cruised from there, but not before forging a 75-45 lead with 10:05 to go.
The loss was OU’s ugliest of the season, and that includes blowout losses at Akron (-20), at Toledo (-17), and at home against Kent State (-10).
“We’ll learn from this,” Preston said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had a loss like this.”
The setback was costly. OU not only missed out on a chance to climb into second in the MAC standings, but the loss dropped it back to fifth. Toledo clinched at least a share of the regular-season title with a win on Saturday, with Akron and Kent State now tied for second. Buffalo is fourth, OU is fifth, and Bowling Green, Miami and Ball State round out the top eight.
The game was the third in five days for Ohio, but neither Preston nor Boals said that was a factor. The Bulls were also playing their third in five days.
OU will make it four games in eight days on Tuesday when it visits KSU for the second matchup this season with the Golden Flashes.
The Bobcats were off their game on Saturday, and Boals said it had little to do with the Bulls penchant for talking. The Ohio coaching staff tried to bring up the topic to the officiating crew during pregame.
“It started in pregame warmups,” Boals said. “I’m not worried about what they do or what they say.”